6 Bad-Ass TV Women


For decades, popular TV has featured working women (hello, Mary Tyler Moore) in lead roles. In fact particularly, in recent years, television shows have been where actresses of a certain age (like, 35) could find meaty and fun roles as hardbitten prosecutors, parornmal detectives, and so on.

But as we get ready to immerse myself in the 2012-2-13 season, it’s time to celebrate the fact that not only is there good work for women on TV, but there are a lot of women characters who do good work, and who defy the boring tv tropes of working women. They prioritize their jobs as much their kids and relationships and don’t get punished for that choice, but are instead celebrated by the show’s creators for their skill at handling crises, being confident, and--this is American pop culture, after all--looking good in a blazer or a white coat.

Still, not all is perfect. Almost all of the shows below have to walk a balance between giving their female leads interesting love lives and letting those love lives take over the plot arcs and destinies of those leads. In most cases, that balance is in constant danger of tipping. So consider this list both an homage to these ladies and also a plea that they not be ruined by being turned into stereotypes, doormats, or frigid.

1. Alicia Florrick, the protagonist of “The Good Wife.” Alicia is an unlikely feminist heroine whose decision to stand by philandering politician didn’t lead to her downfall, but rather her coming into her own as a shrewd lawyer and the center of a steamy love triangle. Once a naive spouse, Alicia begins to understand the power plays and morally relative universe of the Chicago law-and-politics game--and manipulate that game to her own ends. Who didn’t cheer when she negotiated a pay raise last season by convincing dueling law firms to offer her more dough? And who didn’t cheer when her estranged husband was so overwhelmed by her skill in the courtroom that he felt compelled to take care of her needs in the bedroom, too? And then there was her risky affair with her boss which she walked out of just as powerful a lawyer as she’d been before, if not more so. “Saint Alicia” is what the public calls her, but her sins make her a much more fascinating heroine to watch, a complex vision of competent revenge on a misogynist world.

2. Olivia Pope, the high-powered “fixer” in “Scandal.” This character, a pioneering black female lead on primetime network TV, is based on real-life crisis manager-to-the-stars Judy Smith (also an executive producer of the show), described as a “powerhouse” by the media, who has managed the crises of clients like Monica Lewinsky. Played by the wonderful Kerry Washington and created by the uber-successful Shonda Rhimes, Olivia Pope has great promise and appealed, but by the end of the season some feminist watchers were worried. Tanya Steele wrote last spring that Pope’s character is in some danger of becoming less important than she could be, succumbing to common plotline pressures:

Usually, the female will partner with a male (either in work or love) and the male will eventually become the lead or takeover the storyline. It is very difficult for women to keep a strong, female character at the center of the story. This seems to be the case here. By the second to last episode, I did not know if 'the president' or Olivia Pope was the lead.

Judging by reaction to the season premiere, Pope's die-hard fans are pleased to see her back in the saddle, work-wise.

3. Robin Scherbatzky, one of the gang from the once-amusing now-tired sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.” Robin is a news anchor who has repeatedly chosen her choice: to be a career girl who doesn’t want to have kids. Her unorthodox but feminist goals have broken up several of her relationships, but she’s stuck to her guns (literally--she loves guns). And there was even a lovely closing sequence from a recent episode that shows "future Robin" achieving television fame, being a popular anchor, and not losing sleep over her life as an "aunt" instead of a mother. I had been cringing up until that episode’s final moments, worried the writers would domesticate Robin, but they stood by her character’s origins. Actress Cobie Smulders holds her own with male superstars Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Segal, incredibly slapsticky in her own right as a Hockey-loving canuck who was raised genderless and had a stint as teen-pop phenomenon Robin Sparkles. So memo to show’s writers from a frustrated fan: don’t ruin Robin in the process of (maybe) getting her back together with Patrick Harris’s Barney. We like our girl the way she is.

4. Leslie Knope, proud city councilwoman in “Parks and Recreation.” If Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon is the feminist that many of us too often are--craven, selfish, spouting our ideology for our own good, suspicious of other women’s motives-- Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope is the feminist that many of us aspire to be--unflaggingly idealistic, unwilling to accept to defeat, energetic, inspirational, and kind and loyal to boot.  Knope’s feminism can be very congused--she admires powerful women regardless of their ideology (the season premiere paired Olympia Snowe and Barbara Boxer as Leslie’s heroine, for instance). But her practical feminism lives up to ideals--kindness to her friends, absolute tenaciousness that gets rewarded, not shot down. She faces mild relationship drama because her dreams of public service are as important to her as being domestically settled, but again, the audience is made to care about Leslie’s dreams as much as she does.

In a column last year, Kate Dailey described Leslie’s love life approvingly:

After some early jokes about how bad she was with guys, we’ve seen Knope date (for the most part) handsome, intelligent, noncrazy men; her two sustained relationships have been mature and realistic. They ended not because of her horrible man-keeping skills, or because she’s such a workaholic, but because for various believable reasons, they weren’t working out.

Leslie’s relationship with her former boss Ben is sweet and nerdy, but (and I know I'm sounding like a broken record) during its final season, the beloved show needs to focus on the characters’ foibles at work and not let the romantic back and forth water its humor down.

5. Carrie Mathison, the troubled CIA agent in “Homeland.” Playing Mathison just netted Claire Danes an Emmy. Her portrayal is a more ambiguous “gritty” character than some of the others on this list--watching in her in action is bound to be less pure pleasure than watching Alicia Florrick, for instance. But she’s on the list because her show is buzzy and dark, and because her character, a secretly troubled detective who is constantly going rogue is a traditional male archetype (see: Holmes, Sherlock) that she has won serious plaudits for making her own. One devoted fan, “Ms. Mary McGill” blogged:

Not only is Carrie a workaholic, she is battling with mental health issues she refuses to address properly, insisting on self-medicating. She is racked with guilt over 9/11 and determined not to let anything of that magnitude ever happen again... unlike typical female characters who exist solely to react to the needs of the male characters, Carrie follows her own gut in ways that are no doubt reckless but also brave. She doesn’t think twice about getting angry or defending her point of view against her male counterparts and superiors. By and large, she doesn’t care about pissing her co-workers off ...

Sounds badass to me. Like the other characters, Mathison has made a romantic and sexual choice that could either be a sign of her agency or derail that agency. Read a more detailed, spoilery piece on the show's politics at The Feminist Spectator.

6. Mindy Lahiri, as created by Mindy Kaling: The pilot of “The Mindy Project” which explores its heroines misguided love of romantic comedies, was considered a mixed bag by critics (including this one). But its very existence as a show Kakling created which is centered around her comedic alter-ego: a funny, flawed, (somewhat) fuller-figured brown lead character, is a genuine triumph. And although Mindy may be attempting to pull herself together socially, she’s got her career in order: “Toward the end of the pilot, we get to see Lahiri deliver a baby, and it's clear she knows what she's doing,” Bitch’s Kelsey Wallace notes. “I for one am glad that the lead of The Mindy Project has her professional shit together..."

Just as “Scandal” will face tremendous commercial and network pressure because of its woman-of-color lead, Kaling and her show have already dealt with backlash. At Racalicious, Nisha Chittal struck back at Kaling’s critics who have labelled her “smug.”

Roles for Asian women on television are few and far between – but Kaling, by starting out as a writer and now as a showrunner, has played a big part in shaping more realistic portrayals of Asian American women on television by creating her own roles. I can’t think of another scripted television show – certainly no comedy – that has had an Asian-American female lead. Kaling deserves to be lauded for breaking down that barrier, for improving the way Asian women are portrayed on television – and she has certainly earned the right to be proud of such trailblazing success.

I, for one, will keep tuning into this show in the hopes it outgrows its pilot and becomes must-see TV. My hope is that the titular project is about self-actualization for the lead character, not just romantic foibles that can become tiresome quickly.

And now for a serious feminist complaint. I enjoy ABC's Emmy-and ratings dominant sitcom, "Modern Family," as much as the rest of the country. But why, why, do none of the women work on that show? And why is even the gay couple divided between stay-at-home dad and working dad? There's not a single family where both parents work, and that's not very "modern" in my book. 

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